Disney wants to build up its Star Wars fanbase in China, and to that end, it has announced today a partnership with conglomerate Tencent (via The Hollywood Reporter) to bring 40 translated novels to the country from the Star Wars universe, including selections from the “Legends” / Expanded Universe line-up.
Disney, Tencent, and its publishing platform Chinese Literature will also work together to produce an original novel set in the franchise, written by a local author. It’s a renewed step to help bolster the franchise in one of the largest and expanding markets in the world.
When Disney began releasing its new generation of Star Wars films in China in 2015, it found that the franchise didn’t have nearly as much traction and financial success as it has in the U.S. and other world markets. China is the world’s second-largest movie market, and increasingly, studios have been depending on the strength of the Chinese box office to make or break a film, sometimes going as far as to film exclusive scenes for the country’s fans. That’s been demonstrated with a number of films in the last couple of years: while Duncan Jones’ film Warcraft flopped in the US, it was an unexpected hit in China. More recently, Marvels Avengers: Infinity War blew up the Chinese box office, raking in more than $200 million on its opening weekend alone. With those sorts of successes, Chinese filmmakers have also been working to develop their own projects: an adaptation of Cixin Liu’s The Wandering Earth pulled in an astonishing $679 million at home.
An iconic CGI-filled action franchise like Star Wars feels as though it should have performed as well as the above examples, but when The Force Awakens debuted in China in 2016, it proved to be underwhelming at the box office, even though it became one of the series’ biggest hits elsewhere in the world. Films like Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and Solo all did worse: grossing only $30.6 million, $28.7 million, and $10.5 million during their opening weekends, respectively.
A big part of the reason behind those performances is the franchise’s comparatively recent entry into the country, along with the structure of the recent films themselves. Lucasfilm only officially released A New Hope for the first time in the country in 2015 — nearly four decades after it was initially released in the United States and other parts of the world. The sequels that followed were specifically designed to appeal to an audience nostalgic for those original films: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi referred back to the original films, while Rogue One and Solo were specifically tied to them — the former set up the events of A New Hope, while the latter set up one of the franchise’s central characters. None of that means much to an audience that hasn’t grown up with a good baseline for those stories.
This isn’t to say that Star Wars doesn’t have a presence in China. Author Ken Liu has spoken about how reading a translation of The Empire Strikes Back novelization during his upbringing in China got him interested in science fiction and fantasy as a genre. The 501st Legion, the world’s largest Star Wars costuming group, has a presence in the country in the form of the Chinese Garrison. It’s clear that while China has some Star Wars fans, they’re not present in the amount required to financially support such a massive franchise.
This is where Disney and Tencent’s partnership appears to come in. Tencent’s digital publishing platform branch, Chinese Literature, will license and release 40 Star Wars novels in the country for the first time, which will be available for free for a limited time to readers. The company will also commission an “authentic Star Wars story with Chinese characteristics”, written by Chinese Literature’s in-house author “His Majesty the King.” According to the Weibo post (via Variety), the story will “bring in Chinese elements and unique Chinese storytelling methods.” Speaking to reporters, the imprint’s CEO, Wu Wenhui, explained that their effort is designed to “help more Chinese readers engage with Star Wars stories and help the force of Star Wars shine brighter in China.” It’s not clear which novels will be released (The Hollywood Reporter notes that it’s a “diverse mix” ranging from the original novelizations and Expanded Universe novels like Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire), and Lucasfilm didn’t return a request for comment prior to publication.
There is precedent for this roll-out in the United States. By the mid-1980s, Lucasfilm had begun to wind down its Star Wars efforts after the release of Return of the Jedi. With no films to promote, merchandise sales trailed off, and the franchise might have ended completely, known only to fans and movie buffs.
What rekindled the Star Wars franchise was a new initiative proposed by Bantam Spectra editor Lou Aronica — he had written to Lucasfilm in 1989, wanting to license the brand for a line of novels. The first of those, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, hit stores in 1991, and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. They were quickly followed by others, demonstrating to Lucasfilm that a large audience remained for the franchise. Within a couple of years, director George Lucas re-released the original films, and launched a new trilogy in 1999. While not the sole reason for the success of the films that followed, the Expanded Universe was vital for keeping the torch lit for fans, allowing them to continue to dip into the larger story again and again.
When Disney brought the Star Wars franchise into China, it hoped that it would be as big a hit as other franchises. After all, the Chinese film market has expanded in response to the country’s growing middle class within the country, a population that now has disposable income to spend on films, and theater chains have expanded throughout the country rapidly. But Star Wars flopped — hard, and that’s had a noticeable impact on the direction of the franchise. Following Solo’s underwhelming performance at the box office, Disney CEO Bob Iger told The Hollywood Reporter that fans could expect a “slowdown” in the release schedule for Star Wars films, something that likely wouldn’t have happened had the films been successful in China. Rather than a film-a-year schedule, we’ll see new Star Wars films every other year starting in 2022, although we’ll presumably see more original content coming to Disney+.
Science fiction has been present in China for at least a century, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the genre really began to take off, with a new generation of authors born after the Cultural Revolution. Now, there’s a growing cohort of home-grown professional science fiction authors, while many other authors have taken to writing long, serialized stories online for legions of readers. The interest and market for science fiction projects is present, and by releasing dozens of translated novels online for free to Chinese readers, Disney seems to be eyeing the “Expanded Universe” literature model that proved successful in the U.S. in the 1990s, to create a bedrock of wider fan support who would, in turn, support the company’s products. This isn’t something that will be accomplished overnight, but with the announcement of a new original novel written by a Chinese author, it is an intriguing first step.